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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Livingston County Pizza Co., Avon

When I started this blog and researching local pizzerias, I kept finding references to a place on Rochester St. in Avon, but it was apparently an instance of an outdated listing, because anytime I checked,the place was closed.
Recently, though, I saw what looked like a new listing for a pizzeria at the same location, by the name of Livingston County Pizza Company. I recently took a drive down to check it out.
The pizzeria is in a small building on what, further north, becomes East River Road. The spartan setting consists of a small counter and a few booths, one of which, near the window, butts up against an industrial-size mixer.
LCPC emphasizes its gluten-free menu, which includes not only pizza, but cakes, pies, cookies, and bread, plus gluten-free versions of their burgers and other hot menu items. I was tempted, for a moment at least, to try the gluten-free pizza, just out of curiosity, but I thought for my first time I should go with the regular pizza. I got a 13-inch "small" plain cheese pie. (They also offer 8-inch "personal" and 16-inch "large" pies.)
This had a dry bottom that was rather soft. The crust was thin, and a little gummy. The dough didn't seem to have risen very much, and I couldn't see any air holes in the cross-section.
That's the bad news. The good news is, it tasted good. There was plenty of sauce and cheese - maybe a little more than necessary for such a thin crust - but the sauce and cheese themselves were well balanced and complemented each other well.
With a cheese pizza, the sauce usually is the strongest-flavored component, and if there's much sauce, it'll be very prominent. This sauce was up front but not overwhelming, with a nice mix of salty, sweet and tangy notes. It had a concentrated, cooked-tomato flavor, reminiscent of a long-simmering tomato sauce.
The cheese was well browned but not burned or dried out. It seemed to be straight mozzarella, nothing too complex, but pretty good, with a pleasantly melted but chewy texture and no grease.
For a small place, LCPC has a big menu. Besides the 12 available pizza toppings, they offer eight specialty pizzas, calzones, wings, hot and cold subs, sandwiches, panini, salads, pasta, and various grilled and fried items. It was only after I left that I noticed that many of the menu selections have a baseball-themed name, such as the Babe Ruth and Ripken burgers, the Ballpark pizza (pepperoni, ham, bacon and sausage), and the Triple Play sub (ham, roast beef and turkey).
And that doesn't even include the gluten-free menu. You can get gluten-free pizzas in 10- and 13-inch sizes, chicken tenders, a Friday fish fry, and just about anything on bread or a roll, all gluten free.
As they say on the infomercials, "but that's not all" - LCPC also offers gluten-free baked goods, from  bread to buns to cookies, cakes, pies, and frozen pizza crusts. I know there are people out there looking for gluten-free baked goods, and this should be on your list of go-to places. It's got as extensive a gluten-free menu as I've ever seen.
As for this pizza, frankly I wasn't thrilled with it. I probably give more importance to the crust than most people, and this wasn't a particularly good crust. It wasn't gluten-free, but like some gluten-free crusts I've tried, it just didn't seem to have risen much. I may have preferred the gluten-free crust, if that's what they do best here.
But to some extent, the lackluster crust was compensated for by the other components, which tasted good and complemented each other well. Considering the pizza as a whole, it was roughly average for pizza in this area, so I'll give it a C.
The Livingston County Pizza Co., 212 Rochester St., Avon
Mon. - Thu. 11 a.m. - 8:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Sun. noon - 8 p.m.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Opa!

NOTE:  at this writing (2/12/14) this establishment is closed.

I'm OK with chain restaurants - no, really - but in general I much prefer local, independent places. So it was nice to read about the recent opening of Opa!, a locally owned, stand-alone Greek restaurant, in the site of a former Perkins.
I like Greek food, and I saw that Opa! had pizza on the menu, so this was a no-brainer for me. At the same time, I know that restaurant pizza is not always great, so I tempered my expectations.
There are three pizzas on the menu, one of which, the Aegean, was out because it included eggplant. Can't stand eggplant.
The vegetarian pizza sounded good, but I went with the Kotopoulo, which is topped with saganaki cheese, grilled chicken, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, olive oil and oregano. For one thing, I'd never heard of saganaki cheese, so I was intrigued by that.
My plate-size pizza was loaded with toppings, about which I had no complaint. One of the first things I do with any pizza, though, is to check the underside, and this one was very pale.
Now again, I know this was restaurant pizza, and maybe it's unreasonable to expect pizza at a Greek restaurant to meet the standards that I set for pizzerias. And maybe I shouldn't pay too much attention to appearances, but concentrate on the flavor, aroma, and texture of the pizza.
But, pizza's pizza, and I do have likes and dislikes, though I try to make some allowances for different styles. And eating involves at least four of the five senses, including sight (and sometimes hearing, as when a pizza crust makes a nice crackly-crunchy sound upon that first bite).
OK, but aside from the paleness, how was it? The bottom surface was dry - good thing, there - with some crunch. The neatly rounded cornicione along the edge had a slight oiliness. The crust as a whole might've been premade, I really don't know, but it seemed to be. It wasn't very bready inside, but more like a warmed-up flatbread, fairly dry and with a bit of crunch. This was one of the few pizzas I've had where I left behind the "bones," i.e., the thicker lip along the edge.
Perhaps as no great surprise, then, this pizza seemed to be all about the toppings. With Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, flatbreads are common, but at the risk of overgeneralizing, they're typically not a big draw in themselves - they're more of a base for interesting combinations of toppings.
Having said that, the toppings here were only OK. Again, there were a lot of them, and though garlic wasn't listed on the menu, this pizza had a prominent aroma and flavor of garlic. This wasn't the harsh flavor of fresh, raw garlic, but the softer, aromatic, almost sweet taste of gently cooked garlic. So that was a big plus.
The other toppings were less universally successful. The bits of grilled chicken were rather dry, as was the cheese, which turned out to be doubly disappointing for its lack of flavor. A sprinkling of dried herbs didn't add much (dried herbs only work in liquid-based dishes, where some of their flavor can exude into the liquid). The black olives and chunks of tomato were fine but unexceptional.
Now the other thing about getting pizza at a restaurant is that I know that the pizza is very often not indicative or typical of the restaurant's food overall. So I must reemphasize that my grades on this blog are for the pizza that I had, not for the restaurant itself. And on this occasion, my two companions, both of whom got the pastitsio (sometimes poorly described as "Greek lasagna"), loved their food.
On the strength of their rave reviews, as well as my own curiosity, I'd come back here, certainly. I'd love to try some of Opa!'s dishes that you don't typically see in Greek restaurants around here, particularly their seafood (mydia - mussels - served in a red garlic sauce, to cite one example), as well as standbys like beef souvlaki.
I was surprised not to see more lamb on the menu - they offer païdakia (grilled lamb chops, with lemon, olive oil and oregano), but that's about it. I hope that's not just some perceived concession to American tastes. If lamb is as much a part of the Greek diet as I think it is, please give us more lamb dishes.
But as far as the pizza is concerned, it just wasn't too good, judged as pizza. If I could somehow forget all my preconceptions about pizza, I might've liked it better, but the crust wasn't crisp at all, the chicken was dry, and the cheese was almost flavorless.
But I'm not going to give it a specific letter grade. I sometimes forgo assigning a rating to pizzas that simply aren't that comparable to others in the area. And this was, really, a different kind of pizza from what I would expect to get at a traditional pizzeria. Plus, despite my disclaimers, if I give this pizza a poor grade, some people are going to assume that I didn't like the restaurant itself. And that's just not true. I just don't know enough about the rest of their food to pass judgment on the restaurant, and as I mentioned, my friends were happy with their dish. So while I will say that I wasn't too nuts about this pizza, I'll leave it at that.
Opa!, 1175 Jefferson Road, 14623
272-0001
Sun. & Mon. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Tue. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: 300 Sensational Soups

As winter approaches, our eating habits change too. For many of us, long-simmering soups and stews tend to replace the more quickly cooked fare of summer. Maybe that's partly due to some deeply rooted biological urge, but it also doesn’t hurt that in winter, you don’t mind heating up your kitchen by cooking something on the stove for hours, whereas in the heat of summer you want to keep cooking times to a minimum, or cook outdoors.
There aren’t many things about winter that I look forward to, but I do enjoy a good pot of soup. They’re generally easy to make, require little fuss or attention, and they’re hard to screw up.
Soup is also one of the most versatile and adaptable dishes around - you can throw practically anything edible into a pot, with liquid, and make a soup.
But if you’re like me, you fall into certain patterns, and go back to the same recipes over and over. Chicken soup. Minestrone. Beef vegetable. Or you open a can of Campbell’s.
That’s all fine, but why not expand your options? Yes, you can sift through recipe websites looking for ideas, but for convenience and reliability, it’s hard to beat 300 Sensational Soups by Carla Snyder and Meredith Deeds. I recently received a review copy.
The authors start with the basics - soup stocks, from chicken to seafood to miso - and move on to chilled, vegetable, bean, cheese, and meat-based soups. Not every recipe is illustrated, but there are numerous sections of full-page color photographs throughout. One thing I’ve found with Robert Rose books is that the photos are gorgeous, and that holds true here. The up-close shots of beautifully presented soups are sure to whet your appetite.
The recipes are relatively simple, and easy to prepare. Occasionally the ingredient lists are fairly long (in the 20ish range), but there’s nothing you couldn’t find at Wegmans, or any other well-stocked supermarket. Each recipe occupies one or two pages, and the book easily lies flat, making it convenient to follow as you’re cooking.
With 300 recipes, you know you’re going to get beyond the basics here. And there are some exotic or unusual soups, like cream of roasted turnip soup with baby bok choy and five spices, and banana soup with raspberry and mint relish. But you’ll also find old standbys like chicken noodle and clam chowder, as well as simple, hearty dishes like steak and potato soup.
I’ve consistently been impressed by the cookbooks I've received from Robert Rose, and this is another good one. It’s got nearly a year’s worth of intriguing soup recipes, well presented and explained. If you like soup even a little, you'll find more than a few in here that appeal to you.
300 Sensational Soups (paperback)
Carla Snyder and Meredith Deeds, authors
384 pages. Robert Rose books, 2008

Monday, December 10, 2012

Whole Pies vs. Single Slices: Some Observations

An observation ... I've been criticized for reviewing pizzerias based on a single slice, rather than a full pie. The theory behind the criticism is that a slice that’s been sitting on a plate, under a heat lamp for some time is hardly indicative of a pizzeria’s pies, made fresh to order.
To which my answer has always been, I’m not reviewing the pizzeria, I’m reviewing the slice. I may say, “I give ABC Pizza a (grade),” but the implied understanding is that I’m talking about that slice, only. And if it's stale, then they should've tossed it and made a fresh pie. So take my review of that slice for what it’s worth.
But it occurred to me the other day that it works both ways. My wife often gets a slice from a local pizzeria, which she really likes. Every now and then we get a pie from that same pizzeria.
But she's consistently been disappointed with their pies. She says the slices are better.
The other night she asked them to make our large pie round, like pies that are made for slices. The reason was, if you order a large pie, you’ll get a sheet-type pizza, rectangular with relatively thick, square-cut slices. They’re OK, but rather chewy, and not as crisp as if you ordered a single slice.
But our round pie, which was “pie cut,” still wasn’t as good as expected. It was out of balance, with a thick, doughy, somewhat soft crust that overwhelmed the toppings.
I have two theories why.
One, when you get a slice, they stick it back in the oven to reheat it That crisps up the bottom a bit. And you're getting it fresh out of the oven, not some time later after it's been in a cardboard box in your or the delivery guy's car on the drive to your house.
Two, this pizzeria, like a lot of others, offers oversize slices. I think that means they stretch the dough out wider, and therefore thinner, than they otherwise would. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s what they do. And by simply asking for a round, rather than rectangular pizza, we didn’t achieve the same thing, because our pizza was not as wide as the pizzas they use for slices. So it was thicker.
That doesn’t mean that I simply like thin pizza better than thick. I’ve had thick pizza with great crust. But it depends on the pizzeria. Some places do thin better than thick, and some places excel at thick crust. This crust was decent, but nothing special, and the slices were more filling than good.
I could’ve done a full-blown review of this pie, and disclosed the identity of the pizzeria, but I hadn’t been planning on it, so I didn’t take any contemporaneous notes. Plus, I’m mostly going by my wife’s description of their slices. I’ve had them, but not in a while. I don’t doubt the accuracy of her description, but I can’t give any details from personal experience. At some point I’ll do a more comprehensive review, but for now I’m just making a more general observation: sometimes, a pizzeria’s slices are better than its whole pies. So if I review a single slice, I may be doing the pizzeria a favor, rather than a disservice.
I’ll make two more comments. First, if you’re a pizzeria owner, I’d like your slices to be representative of your pies. Whether I get a slice or a pie, I’d like the difference to be quantitative, not qualitative.
Second, as customers, we’ll order from this pizzeria again, but I’m going to try harder when I order to specify that we get the same kind of pizza they use for slices. Same thinness, same everything. I may ask them to make it "well done," to see if that makes a difference. And, time permitting, I’m going to heat my oven with a pizza stone ahead of time so I can slide the pizza in for 10 minutes or so to crisp the bottom, if necessary. I'll see if that helps. If so, I'll do an update.
Have you had similar experiences? Love a pizzeria's slices, but been disappointed with its pies? Or vice versa? Leave a comment and let me know.

Friday, December 7, 2012

We Have a Winner!


Jen M., who left a comment on Nov. 30 at 10:24 p.m., is the winner of a $30 gift certificate from The Pizza Stop on State St. in downtown Rochester! Congratulations Jen, you will be getting yourself some of the finest pizza in the area. With $30 to play with you can try both the NY style and Sicilian, or try some of The Pizza Stop's specialty pizzas, like the justly renowned meatball parm, or a stuffed pizza. Whatever you choose, enjoy!
All I need from you now is a mailing address so I can send you the gift card. Please send your info to me at rochesternypizzaguy@gmail.com, and I'll have it in the mail to you next week.
Thanks to all who participated, and to The Pizza Stop for their generous donation of two $30 gift cards. Look for more giveaways in the coming weeks!

Six-50, Chili

After all these years, I still have mixed feelings about wood-fired pizza. What I mean is, it’s fine and all, but I think that sometimes “wood fired” is assumed to mean “excellent.”
In point of fact, in my experience, wood-fired pizza doesn’t tend to be any better, or worse, on average, than any other kind of pizza. I’ve had great ones, OK ones, and bad ones.
Plus, there’s a learning curve with a wood-fired oven. I’m not sure if it’s more or less difficult to make good pizza in a wood-fired oven than in a gas or electric oven, but it’s surely different. And I’m guessing that it’s pretty easy to screw up a wood-fired pizza, since the radiant heat involved necessitates pretty close and constant attention by the pizzaiolo.
Be that as it may, locally the wood-fired trend continues to march on. After years of growth on Rochester’s east side, wood-fired pizza is slowly spreading west of the Genesee.
The latest entrant is Six50 Black Oven Cooking, a restaurant and bar that opened in early November in Chili. I frankly have no idea what the name means; the phone number, 889-1650, includes the numbers 650, but I’m guessing that the phone number followed the name, not the other way around. And though the oven is sort of black, the term “black oven” doesn’t connote anything in particular to me.
But whatever. They could call it One80 Lavender Oven for all I care, as long as the pizza’s good.
On a recent lunch visit, my first instinct on perusing Six50's list of fourteen pizzas was to go with the Margherita, but I’m always tempted by anything spicy, so I opted for the Diavolo, which was topped with tomato sauce, sopresatta, roasted peppers, crushed red pepper flakes, and mozzarella.
The crust was super-thin, as is typical of wood-fired pizzas, but it was remarkably pale underneath. The underside was heavily floured, and firm but not really crisp. The edge displayed a little charring, but was hard and chewy.
Despite the name, this pizza was not particularly spicy. It was topped with a thick tomato sauce, sweet roasted red peppers, and thick slices of sausage, which had a mild but pleasantly meaty, slightly smoky flavor. A heavier dose of red pepper would've been welcome. I know you can always add it to the finished pizza but when it's in the sauce the heat tends to permeate the entire pizza better.
For starters, I tried the minestrone, which was fine, although it was more like a tomatoey bean soup than classic minestrone. It could’ve passed for a mild vegetarian chili.
Six50 has a full bar, with a handful of taps that lean toward local microbrews. There’s an open kitchen in the back of the room, and a single dining area occupies most of the restaurant.
Service was friendly, and generally good. It took what seemed like an unusually long time for my soup to come out, but the staff seemed to be trying hard to please.
I’m not doing a full restaurant review, but I got the impresson that Six50 is striving to achieve a level of sophistication that you might not expect to find in a small plaza next to a convenience store/gas station in North Chili. And I think they’ve got the basics in place. But the pizza could use a little work, particularly the crust. I’d like to see a quicker-baking, crisper crust with a bit of charring underneath and along the edge. This crust seemed too much as if it had been cooked at a relatively low temperature, so that it firmed up and dried out without developing a lot of flavor.
But since Six50 had been open for a very short time when I visited, I’ll hold off on grading it for now. It’s got promise, and I look forward to a return visit.
Six50, 3765 Chili Ave. 14624
889-1650
11 a.m. - 10 p.m. daily

Monday, December 3, 2012

The State of the Pizza Nation, 2012

The current issue of PMQ, a national pizza magazine, contains the 2013 "state of the industry" report. It includes some interesting findings and statistics. For one, the magazine reports that New York state ranks second overall in the percentage of independent (as opposed to chain) pizzerias, at 84%, right behind Connecticut at 88%. I wonder what the breakdown is between upstate and downstate. I'm guessing Upstate NY would've come in somewhere in the middle overall.
Midwestern states dominated the bottom end, with Nebraska coming in last, with just 23% of its pizzerias independent, followed by - or should I say preceded by - Kansas at 26%. I may have to rethink my idea of attending the College World Series in Omaha.
Nationwide, chains own 47% of pizzerias and control 60% of sales. For purposes of this report, "independent" refers to pizzerias with fewer than 10 units; anything over 10 is considered a chain. (They don't say how the classify a pizzeria with exactly 10 units.)
The top chains, ranked by number of units, are Pizza Hut (7595), Domino's (4907), Little Caesars (3518), and Papa John's (3001). I'd never even heard of number 5, Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, at 1283 units.
Based on sales, Pizza Hut comes in again at #1, with 5.4 billion dollars in 2011 sales, followed by Domino's ($3.4 billion), Papa John's (about $2.2 billion), and Little Caesar's ($1.48 billion).
In terms of pizzerias per capita, New Hampshire is first at 4.09 stores per 10,000 people. New York is in the middle at 2.61, and New Mexico is last at 1.4 (at least they have good Tex-Mex).
Trends? For what it's worth, Adam Kuban, founder and editor of the Slice pizza blog, foresees more mobile pizza operations, like food trucks and mobile units that attend festivals and fairs. I'd have to agree, though I also think that like any trend, this one will crest and recede at some point. He's also seeing wood-fired pizzeria owners spin off non-wood-fired pizzerias (I'm not sure where they're going with that), and more pizzerias opened by previously home-based amateurs - don't count me among them.
There's a lot more stuff in the report, including information on pizza outside the U.S., but I'll leave you with the 2013 Pizza Industry Enterprise Award winner, Little Caesars. According to PMQ, Little Caesars has been the fastest-growing chain for several years (over 18% last year), its prices have actually gone down in recent years, and it's got a great record for charitable activities.
In light of its support of charitable causes, which I hadn't been aware of, I don't want to say anything bad about Little Caesars, though I wasn't impressed by the pizza I got there recently. I guess somebody likes it, maybe in Nebraska and Kansas. For me, I plan to continue supporting local independent pizzerias in 2013, and I hope you'll do so too.

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